By now you’ve probably heard about the Kentucky church that decided to ban interracial marriages and even membership privileges for interracial couples. In the wake of embarrassing news reports that quickly went viral, the church is now reconsidering its 9-to-6 vote to forbid interracial relationships. But the episode’s stark reminder that our nation — and the church — is still mired in the sin of bigotry and racism has not gone unnoticed.
When I see disturbing stories like this one, my heart aches — but not before I’m forced to examine it for my own hidden pockets of racism.
I cannot remember the last time I had an open discussion about race relations. Some might consider that a good thing—that maybe I have resolved my personal prejudices and do not feel the need to have conversations about issues that I have settled in my mind. And, after all, we have laws to guarantee civil rights and to protect against discrimination—why stir up controversy? But I am not so naïve as to believe that our laws have done away with racial tension in our country, and I also recognize my own need to repent for past ignorance’s. I know that my silence is not helpful or healthy.
Over the last few years I have begun to acknowledge that, as a white American man, I am sensitive about, and mostly avoidant of, the subject of race relations. It seems that my common reaction is to become defensive when someone brings up racism—as though by acknowledging the problem I am somehow degrading myself or my ethnicity. And considering my profession as a mental health counselor, and that I frequently encourage clients to be open about even the most painful subjects, I find my reactions more perplexing and I wonder about the underlying cause of my avoidance of race issues.
Recently I was watching a documentary on the Civil War and was gripped by the narrator’s descriptions of the hardships endured by families living in slavery. I was particularly stunned to learn that many slave couples would change their wedding vows to read, “Till death or distance do us part,” as there was always the possibility that the couple might be forcibly separated by their owner, with no regard for their marriage. As I watched that documentary, I was disturbed by how much I do not know about black history. But I was more disturbed by how little I consider the thoughts and feelings of my African American friends and acquaintances as they relate to that history.
I remember studying about slavery, segregation, and discrimination in school, but even back then my common thinking was, “That’s all in the past,” or “It’s great that we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I memorized the facts for the tests, or outlined the events of black history in my term papers, but I rarely allowed myself to be touched by the tragedy of our past and the consequences in the present.
Earlier this year, I attended a meeting at work and as we were gathering in the large conference room an African American woman whom I had never met came and sat near me. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, and as we made small talk I began to think about how her life experiences could have influenced her view of me. In her lifetime, she possibly attended segregated schools, was probably not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and had surely endured derogatory, racist comments from men who might have looked much like me. She greeted me with warmth and kindness, but was that greeting difficult for her — did I remind her of someone who may have been unkind to her in the past?
At times I have been guilty of rolling my eyes when I would hear the subject of racism on news shows or other media — as if to say, “Here we go again; why can’t everyone just get over it.” But I cannot imagine counseling a client who has endured some sort of trauma and telling them to “get over it.” I am proud of the progress our country has made in the area of civil rights, and I am not suggesting that anyone dwell on the negative, but I do believe that ignoring wounds from the past can be as hurtful or damaging as the initial trauma.
So again the question dogs me: How and why have I managed to dodge the issues and discussions that should be so crucial to racial reconciliation and healing in our country and world? Part of my avoidance (and I do not believe I am alone in this) is born out of shame for the sins of the past, and a feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to undo those offenses. There is also a fear of disagreement and of being misunderstood — discussing race issues seems to be taboo in some circles, along with other topics to be avoided such as religion and politics. And when racism is viewed on a global scale, it is only natural to have feelings of despair and to question whether an individual can make any real difference.
But I believe I have misunderstood what is needed and what may be most helpful in relating to my neighbors and friends of other races. No one has asked me to find a universal solution to racism in our world, but in my lifetime I have missed many opportunities to simply empathize with others — to try to understand what it is like to be discriminated against because of my color, or to have parents or grandparents who have endured the pains of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, and who may still bear scars from those battles.
I no longer want to be ruled by fear when there is an opportunity for me to listen to someone and relate to them as they share their life experience. Though I may not be able to offer easy answers, and may not be able to give immediate relief to their pain, I can offer my presence and attention. And in those moments where I and my neighbor take the risk of being vulnerable, we may both find healing — not in solutions to problems, but in our service to each other. And in doing this, perhaps we’ll be able to carry out what Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
UPDATE ON DEC. 4, 2011: The Kentucky church that voted to ban interracial couples held another vote today to reverse the ban and welcome people of all races.